For the coming days, weeks, and perhaps even months, the Red Sox roster will remain frozen, a befuddling snapshot of an unfinished, abandoned construction site.
With the lockout of players by Major League Baseball owners last week, teams cannot make — or even discuss — major league transactions. And so, the rush of moves that occurred just before midnight on Dec. 1, which included the signings by the Red Sox of free agent lefties Rich Hill and James Paxton as well as the trade of Hunter Renfroe to Milwaukee for Jackie Bradley Jr. and prospects Alex Binelas and David Hamilton, will yield to silence.
Yet that certainly doesn’t mean that the Red Sox are done with their work in advance of the 2022 season. The additions of Hill, Paxton (out until at least the second half while recovering from Tommy John surgery), righthander Michael Wacha, and Bradley represent the start of a response to the exits of Eduardo Rodriguez and Renfroe and the free agency of Kyle Schwarber, Adam Ottavino, Hansel Robles, Garrett Richards, Martín Pérez, and others.
The Red Sox roster remains a work in progress — and that progress will be unattainable until the end of the lockout, presumably with the arrival of a new collective bargaining agreement.
So what’s left on the to-do list?
Manager Alex Cora looked like a man riding a unicycle on a high wire as he navigated the late innings for much of the second half of the season. Cora and the Sox weren’t alone in that regard, as relievers across the game hit a wall as they tried to readjust from the compressed 60-game season of 2020 to a full 162-game slate.
Still, even if the second-half struggles by Matt Barnes can be attributed to fatigue, the group looked shorthanded even before season-long staple Ottavino and late-season contributors Robles and Richards became free agents.
Assuming the starting five of Nate Eovaldi, Chris Sale, Nick Pivetta, Wacha, and Hill are healthy, the Sox could open the year with Garrett Whitlock and Tanner Houck in the bullpen. Ryan Brasier (signed for $1.4 million next year) and Hirokazu Sawamura (in the second season of his deal) should return, as will lefties Josh Taylor and Darwinzon Hernandez.
That’s a starting point, but the Sox, who had a 3.99 bullpen ERA (12th in MLB), 25.6 percent strikeout rate (10th), and 10.8 percent walk rate (seventh highest), recognize the need to add more.
“We still would like to add more pitching,” said chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom. “Particularly, we’ve got some guys who could fill multiple roles, but as far as short relievers, that’s something we have yet to address in meaningful fashion. We’re going to continue to look at doing that.”
The Red Sox engaged in exploratory tire-kicking with multiple relievers before the lockout. Still, several late-innings options remain, from established closers such as Kenley Jansen to setup options (Ryan Tepera, Andrew Chafin, Ottavino, Robles) to bounce-back candidates (Joe Kelly, Keone Kela) and many more.
In theory, the Sox could stand pat with Bradley essentially replacing Renfroe, add a second baseman to pair with Christian Arroyo, and call it a day. But even if they hope for a rebound by Bradley coming off a horrific season (.163/.236/.261 and an OPS+ of 34, the worst by a big leaguer with at least 400 plate appearances since the infamous Mario Mendoza posted a 25+ OPS in 1979), there’s almost surely another move coming.
“Obviously moving Hunter leaves a hole,” said Bloom. “I do still think we have room to add position players to this crew.”
Bloom suggested that the loss of Renfroe could point the team toward a righthanded bat. There is no shortage of options.
At the top of the market, Kris Bryant remains available. Bryant, who hit .265/.353/.481 with 25 homers in 2021, not only possesses middle-of-the-order power but can play both corner outfield spots, both corner infield spots (offering protection for potential struggles of Bobby Dalbec and, eventually, Triston Casas), and center field in a pinch.
However, those traits along with his age (29) and track record suggest a player who will command a nine-figure deal — the type the Sox haven’t shown any willingness to absorb.
Japanese outfielder Seiya Suzuki, a righthanded hitter with the defensive skills to play right at Fenway, is an obvious fit once his posting process can resume, particularly given his youth (27), well-balanced skill set featuring significant power, plate discipline, solid speed, and defense, and strong throwing arm.
“Overall, I see no flaws in him,” said one evaluator who has followed Suzuki for years, “and with his work ethic and attitude, I can see him going over to the States, adjusting right away, and becoming a starting outfielder for most of the 30 teams.”
The Red Sox also could consider an option at the other end of the spectrum such as 33-year-old Tommy Pham, who struggled to a .229/.340/.383 line in 2021 but whose underlying approach (strikeout and walk rates along with quality of contact) suggest a significant chance of a rebound.
Of course, while a righty would offer the most obvious way of addressing the hole left by Renfroe, the Sox could also turn to a lefthanded option such as Schwarber, who would give them depth and protection at first base.
Perhaps Trevor Story becomes this year’s version of Marcus Semien, a talented 29-year-old shortstop willing to move to second on a short-year contract following a down year (.251/.329/.471 with 24 homers and 20 steals) to rebuild his value before returning to the market. If so, what better venue for a righthanded pull hitter than Fenway? (Yes, Coors Field has an inflating effect on statistics, but good hitters who leave the Rockies often perform well after changing teams.)
Maybe after acquiring Wacha and Hill to solidify the back of their rotation, the Sox use some of the additional prospect depth they created in the Brewers trade to explore a deal with the A’s for a mid-rotation starter or All-Star first baseman Matt Olson.
In sum, there is no shortage of available directions for the Red Sox once the lockout ends. For that reason, it’s a mistake to think of the Renfroe-for-Bradley swap in a vacuum, given that it’s the first of a series of moves — albeit a series with a lengthy interval between maneuvers.